Opinionista Bongani Mbindwane 21 September 2015

Who watches the watchdog?

The reason I asked Yusuf Abramjee who he was during the social media storm over his open letter to President Jacob Zuma on the subject of crime, has a lot to do with public accountability. If we are purveyors of information to the public, we owe that same public the facts about our foundation and the factors that influence us and our global view of life and micropolitics.

“Change the way people think and things will never be the same,” said Stephen Bantu Biko.

In the 1950s the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) understood well those words. The CIA started a program called Operation Mockingbird, a secret campaign to influence the media. Journalists were recruited into news networks to present the CIA’s agenda, and the organisation funded some media students, cultural organisations, and magazines as fronts.

South Africa’s biggest media scandal, Muldergate, saw the National Party apartheid regime stealing millions of public money (what would be more than R1-billion today) to bribe some of these newspaper-based CIA agents in the US to place propaganda and positive stories about the apartheid system in various top publications. Muldergate is named after corrupt apartheid minister Connie Mulder, father of the Mulder brothers who run a political opposition party in Parliament, the Freedom Front Plus. Mulder also aimed to buy The Citizen newspaper to control its editorial content as it was the only widely circulated English title the Afrikaner regime needed.

These two scandals tell us that Biko was correct. He was also correct to point out that the media is important. The media, often made up of white males in South Africa, decides what we as the public think about, what is top of mind, what it is we value, the priorities and what colour clothing to buy in any season. The media has enormous power, it influences what we like and dislike; the media shapes our thinking and cultures. Our choice is highly influenced by the media. The media can decide to create a happy nation and we would have it. It is the media that decides on priorities and what we should focus on.

Globally, politicians envy the media. The media has power yet it is unelected. This demands that the media be careful in its dealings, in its editorial policies and indeed its ethics. Wars can be launched via media reports. Peace can be had via media.

South Africa is in the political space created by shifting interdependencies among political actors, by the globalisation of capitalism and power, and by the decline of unchecked state power.

This phenomenon has led to a fluidity of groups identified as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), that have taken the lead in many social matters and special interests, including minority self-preservation agendas as we see with the likes of AfriForum. Some have undertaken a varied range of activities, including implementing grassroots or sustainable development like Section27.

There is no better ‘favourite child’ for funders and the media alike than NGO ‘twins’ like Lead SA and Crime Line, led by veteran journalist Yusuf Abramjee. The work that has been done by the two has seen its principal become a global icon in official development agencies and Interpol. The media darling factor for these twins is not by chance but design as Primedia, the owners of EWN, Radio 702/567 and 94.7, adopted them as part of its company corporate social initiative and self-promotional agenda on issues dear to the people.

The nexus between NGOs and media has long been established, with the media often having stories written by NGOs and not journalists. In the South African context, analysts and the media see NGOs as everything that governments are not: able to identify and respond to grassroots needs. NGOs often see themselves not necessarily as partners with the government but as watchdogs for the public. Even opportunistic ‘brief-case’ NGOs are formed with fanfare by members of the middle class and the media to seek funding.

NGOs must be understood within the micropolitics of South Africa, as made up of real people with social and political actors holding natural biases.

At the ANC congress in 1997, Nelson Mandela said of NGOs: “We must also refer to sections of the nongovernmental sector which seek to assert that the distinguishing feature of a genuine organisation of civil society is to be a critical ‘watchdog’ over our movement, both inside and outside of government.”

Abramjee decided to write an open letter to President Jacob Zuma, which was published in the press. In the letter, Abramjee says he writes as a citizen not as an NGO man or a journalist. The letter is direct and peppered with politically contested matters of policy and other bureaucratic management issues. Published on 16 September, 10 days after Abramjee attended the South African Police Commemoration Day event at which Zuma delivered a key note address and a policy statement on crime.

In his letter, Abramjee laments Zuma’s neglect of citizens’ pain. He mentions just one policy item among several Zuma mentioned in his speech. Abramjee’s single takeaway from Zuma’s speech, which he also rubbishes, is that the president said: “The callous murder of your loved ones was an attack not only on them, but on the state itself. The police represent the authority of the state. They form the bulwark between order and anarchy.”

Abramjee writes that Zuma is essentially out of touch because he has police protection and is not affected by crime. This comes from someone who knows full well that Zuma’s wife was a victim of rape and assault. This is what Zuma said at the event attended by Abramjee: “We thus have to confront the hard reality that crime in South Africa is violent and that criminals in our country do not hesitate to take the life of another human being, whether he or she be a police officer or a civilian.”

Among the plans to manage crime Zuma mentioned was hiring additional police and directing “the minister of police to do everything possible to provide the police with the tools they need to fight crime effectively, and to protect themselves”. Zuma also urged people not to buy “stolen goods whether these are cars, television sets or cellphones and close the market for criminals”. (Read the entire speech here.)

A National Tactical Response Plan has also been developed to deal with crime.

All of this Abramjee failed to take note of in his letter. No mention was made of the 63 police officers who were killed on duty between April 2014 and March 2015. Instead Abramjee entered the political fray of Marikana, mentioning the victims of the police massacre but ignoring the fact that 10 other people, including police officers, had already been killed at the site.

Abramjee’s letter went viral on social media as he used every tool available to him in the Primedia space to publicise it widely. As the day went on, the question arose as to the intention of the letter and Abramjee started a slew of tweets directed to the president, stating that hours had gone by and he had not received an answer from Zuma to his letter. Many started to poke fun at the letter and a new twist to the hashtag #DearMrPresident started mocking Abramjee.

As for me, I recalled Mandela speaking of NGOs “pretending to represent an independent and popular view, supposedly obviously legitimised by the fact that they are described as nongovernmental organisations, these NGOs also work to corrode the influence of the ANC and government”.

I asked Abramjee via Twitter why he made the matter sound self-serving and about him. He responded that crime is a serious matter. When I asked why he thought he had a right to publish a letter and demand answers from a head of state within hours in a condescending manner reminiscent of the boy-bass attitudes, he laughed it it off. Abramjee exuded arrogance when I demanded that he be humble about his station in society and not abuse it. The discussion via Twitter continued for days, with me asking Abramjee about his past as an apartheid propagandist who had worked against the ANC all his adult life. I found this to be pertinent to air the true intentions of media people and their orientation.

Of course Abramjee was a Nationalist Party sympathiser and collaborator during apartheid, he worked for the then SABC which was charged with supplying the apartheid regime with oxygen while the majority were being choked.

Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations Security Council. Now Abramjee is a very eager crime fighter who has been reborn as a crusader against a government that supposedly doesn’t care.

Abramjee also worked in 1987 for the sub-committees on defence and public administration and government in the apartheid tricameral Parliament, where he was free to campaign against the United Democratic Front and the ANC in particular. At the House of Delegates, it was suggested that Abramjee was able to be closer to National Party MP Boetie Abramjee, at whose house a limpet mine exploded in 1989. Some suggested that an Umkhonto weSizwe unit commanded by Zuma was responsible. Abramjee had long had links with the National Party, with family members being party members and MPs during apartheid.

Public opinion and focus is shaped by the media and the public has a right to know who is shaping these minds. Who is asking the public being asked to focus on this and not that, and why? Why are reactionary letters with a self-serving agenda printed daily. Do we have the ‘Goebbels’ around us or not? Are the actions of the media always upright, their ethics unquestionably sound and stories and campaigns without party partisan agendas?

When I listen to Mulder brothers talk I know who they are, when I hear Donald Trump I know who he is, why can I not know who it is that shapes my mind, my children’s minds and society? Where do they come from and what informs them? Abramjee is an apartheid trained propagandist who controlled and hid the truth from our television screen during apartheid. When public accountability is demanded from the government by media practitioners and NGOs alike, these actors must be prepared to be put under the same scrutiny.

Whether it is rumours about Abramjee’s deep involvement with the apartheid regime police force or his rumoured blue light while he was a crime reporter or his bully tactics on police over his son’s matters or his hegemony over the content on the radio, these all require him to do what he preaches. What drives him to be so opposed to black journalists having a black journalism forum? Do not the oppressed and marginalised have a right to caucus? How come Radio 702 has managed to get single-minded radio hosts in a country with the ideological fluidity of South Africa? Is Abramjee taking us, as the public, on a personal joyride to settle apartheid war scores? If so, how could this be affecting nation building when Primedia has millions of listeners it influences?

As a writer, I want my foundation to be known, I want to be able to confirm that I am of a progressive ideological mind-set and my writings will reveal this as would my past. I did work for and with the ANC as a younger man and this influenced and shaped the way I process things around me. I see through progressive glasses.

The #DearYusuf hashtag is an important tool to get the truth out so that the public is aware of the identity of their new saviours. Is Abramjee a puppet master in a new Mockingbird programme driven by Primedia? The questions remain. DM

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